Arrive early: Bigger planes, new destinations causing security delays at Missoula airport

Passengers check in at Missoula International Airport. (Missoula Current file photo)

A shortage of TSA officials at Missoula International Airport resulted in 25-minute lines at the screening gate on Tuesday, prompting some passengers to miss their morning flight to Salt Lake City and Seattle.

As airlines transition to larger mainline aircraft to accommodate Missoula’s continued growth in passengers, and as new and seasonal routes come online starting in May, long lines at security could become common, and passengers are advised to arrive early.

Two hours early.

“Summer is getting busier and busier, with more moves by the airlines,” said Brian Ellestad, deputy airport director. “We’re now up to a 27-percent increase in the number of seats available in June.”

That jump in available seats amounts to several hundred additional daily passengers, and it’s driven by a number of factors. For starters, the aircraft are getting larger, including Delta’s upgrade from an Airbus 319, which generally seats 128 passengers, to an Airbus 320, which seats up to 186.

American Airlines will also enter the Missoula market in June, offering year-round, nonstop service to Dallas/Forth Worth and seasonal service to Chicago. Other seasonal routes, including Atlanta, San Francisco and Los Angeles, among others, will further increase the number of passengers.

Missoula’s antiquated airport terminal wasn’t designed to accommodate such crowds.

“This year’s summer activity may be the most challenging that we’ve seen in some time as we add American into the operational mix and more mainline aircraft that require more ramp space, and more space in the hold room to accommodate the additional passengers,” said airport director Cris Jensen.

While the airport is working on a long-term fix by building a new passenger terminal with eight gates and two concourses, that will take years to complete. In the short term, possibly as early as May, it plans to add a third line at security.

Later this year, as part of the first phase of the terminal project, security will then be relocated to the airport’s current lobby. But that won’t occur until after the summer rush, and those passengers who don’t plan for longer lines at security could miss their flight.

“We had a situation this morning where we had short staffing in TSA that resulted in 25-minute waits in the screening line,” said Dan Nueman, the airport’s business development manager. “Both Alaska and Delta ended up moving passengers off because they physically couldn’t get them through screening and up to the gate in time and on board the aircraft.

“If you want to make your flight, show up two hours early.”